Colombian human rights lawyers on Thursday vigorously denied accusations they have been “profiting from the pain” of victims, following allegations of fraud in the compensation of victims of a 1997 massacre.
Rafael Barrios, president of the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (CAJAR), which won $8 million in compensation for victims of the Mapiripan massacre, said that their case – now accused of being deliberately exaggerated – was based on evidence provided by the state itself.
The Colombian Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra has accused CAJAR and the plaintiffs they represented of a “shameless” conspiracy to defraud the Colombian state, after witness Mariela Contreras recanted earlier testimony that her husband and two sons had been killed in the slaughter.
The Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos later called the 2009 ruling a “mockery of the international human rights system” – a statement international human rights organizations have asked him to retract.
Following the revelation, Colombian Judge Teresa Ruiz ordered the verification of the 50 deaths officially recognized by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) – an investigation that led to the Prosecutor General’s office concluding that only 10 people had been confirmed dead.
Barrios told newspaper El Tiempo that the confession by Contreras was the first time CAJAR knew anything about potential “false victims”. He pointed out that it was the Prosecutor General who first took her testimony, and criticized the state for not acting with due diligence when it originally investigated events at Marpiripan.
He said CAJAR always made every effort to confirm the veracity of witness statements, while “on the principle of good faith” believing what they said. Regarding Conteras’s testimony, he said, “We used it because she went to the Prosecutor General and it starting criminal proceedings based on her claim. We relied on that testimony, which was sent here in 2003 and remained the same until 2009.”
Accusing the lawyers collective of “a ‘human rights’ swindle”, Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote that “CAJAR claimed that 49 people had been killed by paramilitary forces, and it laid the blame at the feet of the Colombian military.” However an official statement from the IACHR in San José, Costa Rica, which oversaw proceedings and awarded the damages, confirms Barrio’s assertion that the case was based primarily on evidence and documentation provided by the state itself.
Carlos Castaño, the founder and highest commander of the paramilitary umbrella organization AUC, and his successor Salvatore Mancuso, have also publicly admitted that at least 49 people were slaughtered.
According to Barrios, human rights lawyers are being deliberately smeared. “The strategy of accusing those representing victims of using their suffering to get rich is nothing new – it began with the last government.”
Leonardo Iván Cortés Novoa, a former judge in Mapiripan who was a witness in the case, said on CAJAR’s website the Ministry of Defense was mounting a “cynical media circus” to avoid paying victims compensation.